Photographing Displaced Persons: Then and Now

In our post on the photography of Maxine Rude – on display in the Eiger-Zaidenweber Holocaust Resource Center at the Sabes JCC – we touched on issues involved in exhibiting these photographs, including that a photographer’s choices on how to present a subject (framing, selecting, and excluding subjects) may influence a viewer’s perception.

A curator also makes influential choices, deciding how and what to include in an exhibit, and what to exclude. In putting pieces of art or photography together, these works may take on new and unexpected meanings in a visitor’s mind that were never intended by artist or curator, but are a result of the exhibition nonetheless. Or, a curator may intentionally be drawing comparisons that were not in the original artist’s mind.

In presenting Maxine Rude’s work, we take note of her portrayal of children and families, asking questions of the viewer about their response to seeing these victims of World War II and the Holocaust.

The photo below, “UNRRA Czechoslovakian Nurse with Orphans,” is an arrangement that could be mundane: a row of children and their parent sitting together. The title, however, reminds us that this is not a photograph of a family. These children do not have parents, and the nurse – working in Kloster Indersdorf, a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration center for displaced persons children – is a Jewish nurse from Czechoslovakia, and not Germany, where Kloster Indersdorf is located. We know who the nurse is: Greta Fischer. She appears in other Maxine Rude photographs, and has a collection of documents in the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum. You can see and hear her filmed oral history.

Fischer and these children were all affected by World War II and the Holocaust, and are together not as a family, but as DPs, not in their homes, but in a monastery that was used to house these children lacking homes.

The displacement of people is a contemporary global issue. In a panel in our Maxine Rude exhibit, we discuss photojournalism of what is today called the “refugee crisis.” Popular media have drawn comparisons between victims of the Holocaust and migrants (not without controversy). Our exhibition places two particular photographs together in the same room, and we are self-consciously asking how they compare:

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Maxine Rude, “UNRRA Czechoslovakian Nurse with Orphans.” 1945.
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Dario Mitidieri, “Lost Family Portraits.” 2015.

The first photo is from Maxine Rude, taken in 1945. The second is by photographer Dario Mitidieri, taken in 2015. Mitidieri was awarded third prize in the World Press Photo 2016 photo contest.

Both Rude’s and Mitidieri’s photographs place their subjects in a similar arrangement. In Rude’s photo, they are not a family by relationship, but are posed like a family, smiling for the camera, though they have come together as a result of war and violence. One might note that the adult in the picture (Fischer) is dressed in a military uniform, rather than casual attire. In Mitidieri’s photo, this is indeed a family, but their arrangement includes an empty chair to represent the loss of a specific family member. They are not smiling. This family’s loss is also because of war and violence.

In his photograph, Mitidieri made a notable choice in framing: the edges of the picture extend past the dark backdrop, and you can see the artificiality of this arrangement: they are not posed in a studio, but the photo was taken in a refugee camp. By extending his photo beyond the backdrop, Mitidieri has given the viewer a hint of a much larger context.

We know that the use of imagery depicting victims and suffering is nuanced and often problematic. The curatorial decision to juxtapose these photos – two scenes separated by seventy years – will hopefully be interrogated for meaning and worthiness, given that the presentation of historical and contemporary suffering of this magnitude could potentially overwhelm a viewer into numbness, let alone dehumanize the individual subjects of the photo.

Optimistically, however, exhibiting these photos together may fulfill an educational as well as humanistic purpose: Having seen that Mitidieri’s subjects live in a context wider than the photograph may be a necessary reminder to the viewer of a greater historical context of Maxine Rude’s photographs. Her subjects’ lives extended beyond the moment of each photo; indeed they may still be living. In turn, we hope that, in comparing the individuals in Mitidieri’s photo to victims of WWII, that the Syrian family may elicit more empathy. Their situation is current, their historical context is now, and their future is unknown.

 

Demetrios Vital is Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.  In this role he is responsible for the care and promotion of CHGS art and object collections, as well as working with the community in the development of programs, activities, and events.

Wahutu Siguru contributed to this post. Wahutu is a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota. Wahutu’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.

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